Political editor WALTER CRONXITE reports on the strange silence from the council about the faltering fate of one of its flagship projects
The latest embarrassing set-back for Tony Newman and his Labour colleagues’ hopes of retaining control of the council at the local elections next May has come in Ashburton Park.
There, a private education operator who was to take on the running of the Old Ashburton Library building has walked away from its deal with the council just weeks before the venue was due to re-open after a £1million council-funded makeover.
The fate of the park and the refurbishment of the run-down building, recently re-titled Ashburton Hall, was a key local election issue in 2014, when Labour won the then Ashburton ward from the Tories, one of the key gains which handed control of the Town Hall to Labour.
After boundary changes, Ashburton Hall is now in Addiscombe East ward, which is still regarded as a marginal. The failure of Labour to get the venue open and running with an approved operator after nearly four years is already being used by the Conservatives in their campaigning ahead of May 2018’s Town Hall elections.
Ashburton Hall was supposed to open for community hire use last month, with a café and other facilities managed by Nisai, a Harrow-based education services provider. Nisai had been announced eight months ago as the council’s preferred bidders, from around 40 separate tenders.
“This is a fantastic project and one that will really breathe new life into the area and see us deliver on our pledge to turn the building into something that will be a real benefit to the local community,” was the positive spin put on the scheme by Alison Butler, the deputy leader of the Labour group on the council, when announcing the tendering process.
“It is probable that one lead organisation will take on the overall responsibility for old library, but they might choose to sub-let the space.”
And that was how the arrangement was expected to work when, in February, Nisai was unveiled as the lucky winners of the council bidding process. Together with Croydon-based Fit 2 Learn, Nisai was to provide training and apprenticeships for children who have been excluded from local schools and others with learning difficulties and SEND.
At the time, Dhruv Patel, the chief executive of Nisai Group, which operates a similar education scheme in Nottingham, said: “We’re very pleased to have won the tender and Ashburton Park is an exciting new venture for us. Together with our partners Croydon and Fit 2 Learn, we hope to replicate the positive results we have achieved at our hub in Nottingham and provide a comprehensive provision for local students.
“We intend to create a centre that will be a real asset to the local community.”
September 2017 was given then as the opening date, after more than £1million-worth of renovation works had been carried out by Croydon Council on the 130-year-old building, which had been left vacant and near-derelict under the previous Tory council administration.
“We want to re-open this well-loved and historic building and make it once again an important focus for community life,” Butler, the cabinet member for “regeneration”, said as she prepared to take the credit for delivering on the scheme.
Since when, silence.
Council officials supposedly responsible for the project have not responded to questions from Inside Croydon, and even Newman and Butler’s colleague councillors have been kept in the dark over progress with the re-opening, or the lack of it.
Nisai pulled out of the scheme just weeks before the opening, with no reason given. When Inside Croydon contacted them on Friday, Nisai’s directors failed to return our call, as was promised.
There’s been no public statement from the council, either, beyond a few lines statement on its website which says, “Whilst we are reviewing options for an operator for Ashburton Hall, we are keen to hear from individuals and community groups who are interested in hiring function rooms at Ashburton Hall between late October 2017 and late April 2018.
“After this date room bookings will be co-ordinated by the new operator.”
Sources on Katharine Street understand that the Labour-run council is seeking new operators for the borough’s parks, and that the management of Ashburton Hall will be included in that arrangement.
No firm plans have been made to open the café in Ashburton Hall, as had been the long-stated objective, with the council website saying only, “We’re also looking into options for a café for the park. This is something park users have told us they feel would be a well-used benefit to the park. Further details on this will be available on this page as soon as they’re available.”
The council’s staff has only had three years to get their act together, after all…
Oddly, the council has not gone back to the dozens of bidders who wanted to build a business around the Hall, but were rejected as not being good enough.
Instead, council officials have opted for the temporary arrangement of taking bookings in-house. “There’s about 30 different organisations who have expressed an interest in making regular hirings,” one steadfastly glass-half-full type at the Town Hall told Inside Croydon.
That, though, is unlikely to satisfy the grumpy Tories, who will hold up Ashburton Hall as another instance of the council failing to deliver under Labour.
Croydon Labour has invested a great deal of political capital in Ashburton Park, first through its ward candidates, with Maddie Henson prominent in setting up the Friends of Ashburton Park, and then, once in power in May 2014, through the scrapping of a Tory scam to flog the building off to an evangelical church group for a fraction of its true value.
Now, what could have been an example of the council taking a local asset and getting good value out of it for the community, looks like becoming a stick with which to beat the Labour candidates with come the local elections.
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